The Significance of Ganga and What it Means to Save Her
In the previous issue, we discussed the political and policy problems of the government’s Ganga Rejuvenation Mission, and came to the conclusion that we have not been able to capture either the immense implications of the problem or the solutions to deal with it. The problem facing Ganga cannot be simplistically placed within the context of the general environmental problems facing the country.
For, Ganga does not only sustain us materially, but, at a much deeper level, is also the spiritual lifeline of the Indian civilisation. The existence of Ganga for the Indian nation is akin to the air we breathe and is often taken for granted. Ask the people living in the mountains or on the banks of Ganga, and they can never imagine the demise of Ganga, no matter how polluted or overburdened it becomes. And, there is a very powerful, valid reason behind this thinking – Mother Ganga is a form of the all-powerful and eternal Mother whom we worship. She is not just a river – the water is only one expression of her. She is the one who has ensnared the senses of her devotees away from this world, the one whose waters soothe our turbulent consciousness through the balm of their peace and calm, no matter who goes to her, and the one who gives refuge to all. She is the one whose waters have filled devotees with tears of devotion and joy and on whose banks great hymns have been composed. Every other recourse may fail us, but how can our Mother fail? No Indian can fathom or accept such a thing – and rightly so. How can she ever die? If Mother Ganga dies, then India also dies.
Are we – mere children living our selfish lives today and dying tomorrow – in any position to save the mighty Mother, who has sustained this powerful nation since the dawn of the Indian civilisation from the Vedic times?But this is exactly what we tend to think, trapped as we are in our egoistic bubble.
The issue at stake is something else. Sri Aurobindo had said that it is the spirit that matters and that the body may change, but the spirit lives on, and that is what preserves a system or a culture. But if the spirit dies, then the body will also die, and that is how systems and institutions are destroyed. We are in no position to save Mother Ganga. She is the eternal Mother and we have been fortunate to have taken birth in the land she has lovingly nurtured. Ganga will never die. But we are in the danger of losing our Mother, and that will be our loss, which will leave us dead. So we are not saving Ganga – as the issue has been egoistically portrayed so far – but are trying to save ourselves. We will be orphaned children engulfed by the poison of this world if our Mother deserts us. Mother Ganga represents the heart of our spiritual civilisation. And spiritual is all that we have been and are. Swami Vivekananda had said that if India loses her spiritual civilisation to follow the materialism of the West, she will have lost everything.
This is at the heart of the question we face today when we talk about saving Ganga and the meaning behind it, irrespective of what angle we approach it from.
Successive governments and technocrats have approached it from a scientific and policy angle. Social movements like the Save Ganga Movement have tried to go deeper and combine people’s value for the Gange (which nobody has been able to express) with local work and solutions. Some groups have gone into the historical and cultural significance of Ganga, as well. Increasingly, as a part of rising awareness, many people are expressing the view that over the centuries and ages, Mother Ganga has been absorbing our sins and releasing us from the slithering bondages of this world, and now it is our turn to reduce her burden.
Thanks to the dams and hydroelectric projects being constructed and others being deliberated in her upper basin, her waters are in the danger of drying up completely, with her current flow being just about 5 percent – far below the minimum flow of 32 percent. It is predicted to be soon reduced to a seasonal river during the monsoon. And, in time, if we continue exploiting her waters, she will have shielded herself from our view, leaving us to die. The Gange is already safe – she is eternal – but we would have killed ourselves, in time.
Therefore, the challenge of not losing our Mother is no less than the struggle that was waged to save Mother India during the freedom struggle. The only difference is that now the struggle is not against a physical enemy – as were the colonial rulers – but against the utilitarian, selfish mentality and vital ego through which we are spelling our own demise.
Ganga in History
Historically, there is very little by the way of Ganga that has been captured in history. The only major historical records revolve around the 1916 agreement between the British and the Indians, led by Madan Mohan Malaviya, on building dams on Ganga. In post-Independence India, the significance of Ganga has been captured by various movements like the ‘Save Ganga’ movement, and, the various social groups that work for the cause of Ganga.
Ganga Mahasabha was set-up by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1905 on grounds of the apprehension that the British may dam the flow of Ganga completely.1 In 1914, a people’s movement was launched to oppose the construction of a dam at Haridwar upstream to HarkiPauri.2 The construction of the dam was mainly opposed by religious leaders who said that they cannot perform religious rituals in captive waters, and approached Pandit Malaviya to mobilize support. Their main demand was that the natural current of the river be maintained – crucial to its religious sanctity – as it descends from the Himalayas. This led to the British withdrawing their decision to construct a dam, and, instead, a ‘kutcha band’ was built.
As a result of this revolt by the Hindu community on the violation of Ganga, a 1916 agreement was signed between the British and the Hindus, led by Pt. Malaviya, which stated that:
- In future, the unchecked flow of Ganga will never be stopped. (Reference: 1916 Agreement, clause 32, para-I).
- No decision on Ganga will be taken without the consent of the Hindu community. (Reference: 1916 Agreement, clause 32, para-2).3
The key point is that this agreement is preserved even today under Article 363 of the Indian Constitution.
Subsequently, there have been many movements to ‘Save Ganga’ and to oppose the construction of dams. There have also been many draft proposals – in the form of various Acts – to conserve Ganga and penalize those who degrade it, with many of them even being conceived in the form of human rights. But, in reality, all of them have led to piecemeal regulatory measures that could be easily bypassed and have worsened the condition of the river (as highlighted in the first article).
Update on the Present Situation
A lot of work is going on in the National Clean Ganga Mission. Unlike the previous governments, this government has made Ganga Rejuvenation its main focus, with Minister, Uma Bharti, even declaring that a people’s movement was needed to revive Ganga, even locking horns with Ministries of Environment and Power, to oppose development projects that harm Ganga flow and purity.
To this effect, the government, recently, formed two separate committees on Ganga – one would prepare a draft Act for ensuring cleanliness and uninterrupted flow of the river and the other will come up with proposals for de-silting the river and establishing the difference between sand mining and de-silting.
However, the war lines have been drawn within the government, with Uma Bharti set to file an affidavit in Supreme Court to oppose the hydel projects cleared by the Ministries of Environment and Power. The latter is using the 1916 agreement to argue that the projects will allow 1000 cusecs of water to flow unfettered, but only through three of its tributaries (Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi) and through the main stem, completely disregarding the fact that such a flow may no longer be sufficient – since dams have already been constructed – and that other tributaries too should be taken into account.
Our future – dependent on Ganga – is increasingly getting entangled in wrong solutions. Let us consider what will happen if there are certain favourable outcomes – if the Supreme Court upholds that dams can no longer be built, if the government toes that line and if we manage to establish thousands of Sewage Treatment Plants (for which nearly 70% of government’s Clean Ganga budget is allocated).
Even then nothing much will come of it. We may become a strong regulatory and rule-bound nation like America or Europe, but we would have left gaping holes through which we may, at any time, destroy the house of cards we would have built. And our rules and norms and institutions will remain just a delicate house of cards that can be toppled anytime the pervasive spirit of utilitarianism and selfishness overpowers us – as is happening currently.
Objectively also, there is no dearth of evidence to show that rules can be easily subverted, and always are easily subverted, and the Ganga mission, over the years, has faced a lot of corruption. Even if you impose penalties – which may go some way in instilling fear among the people – in the longer run, it will not be difficult to take the local authorities on board to bypass the rules altogether, as is the common practice.
And, this ineffectivity of laws is just the tip of the iceberg. As we had stated above, let’s get the picture right – we are not saving the Ganga, but we are trying to save ourselves because she is necessary to our survival. And if that is really the case then we are faring very poorly. Speaking materially, on a planet 70% of whose surface is covered with water and out of which only 3% of the water is actually fit for consumption, we are doing very poorly in preserving scarce resources. Even if Europe has managed to methodically revamp the river Rhine, it does not become a role model, because we cannot ignore the negative consequences of its scientific-materialistic advances that have poised the planet on the brink of a disastrous demise.
Similarly, even if we do manage to save something for ourselves by rejuvenating the Ganga, it is yet uncertain where our vital greed and ego, intellectual bonds and dependence on the cult of materialism and commercialism will take us. The Ganga will eternally BE, but by following the present curve of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ we are in the danger of blotting out our own existence.
- Ganga Mahasabha. http://www.gangamahasabha.org/ (accessed August 18, 2016).
- Shukla, A.C, and Vandana A. Ganga: A Water Marvel. New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House, 1995.
- Ganga Mahasabha. http://www.gangamahasabha.org/ (accessed August 18, 2016).